UNIVERSITY AREA — To a neighborhood long plagued by robberies, assaults and drugs, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is bringing a new way to watch for crime.
This spring, deputies will begin using 20 cameras mounted on utility poles to zoom in on the University Area's trouble spots.
There are a lot of them. Major crime in the unincorporated area north and west of the University of South Florida dropped nearly 8 percent last year. But the area still led all unincorporated areas examined by the Times in the number of murders (six), robberies (196), aggravated assaults (315), and drug offenses (582).
The cameras can provide clear images of license plates three blocks away. They can show whether a quarter on the sidewalk landed heads or tails. And they can see into darkness using infrared technology.
Even when not monitored by humans, they will record around the clock, with the video stored for review days or weeks later.
"Who wouldn't want a cop standing on your corner?" said Maj. J.R. Burton, the commander for the sheriff's district covering the University Area. "That's essentially what you've got now with the video camera on that corner."
A $1.3 million federal grant paid to install the cameras, a first for the Sheriff's Office, in an area bounded by N 23rd Street and Fowler, Bearss and Nebraska avenues.
Eye in the sky
Deputies will use them to monitor public spaces such as parking lots, but not to look into the windows or back yards of private homes, Burton said. And the cameras are no secret. Each has a gold sheriff's star and a flashing blue strobe light to announce its presence and purpose.
Merchants and apartment owners have welcomed the surveillance, Burton said.
"I am always for cameras," said Kim Pham, 29, the co-owner of the Kaleisia Tea Lounge on Fletcher Avenue. She thinks they will deter crime.
Sheriff's officials hope to see something similar to what happened in Chicago. There, police told Hillsborough officials, the cameras helped them react quickly and make arrests. In response, neighbors felt safer about coming out of their homes and saw things they shared with police. Crime didn't move elsewhere, Burton said. It dried up.
The cameras, however, aren't the first novel approach tried in the University Area. In 2007, the Sheriff's Office sued four apartment complexes, calling them breeding grounds for crime. Sheriff David Gee said the cases were settled as the complexes improved security and lighting.
With more than 40,000 residents, the University Area is one of unincorporated Hillsborough's poorest and most densely populated areas. It is a notoriously transient place that has long tried to shake its image as Suitcase City.
But the profile of the people who live here is changing. That affects crime, officials say.
Once predominantly black, the University Area, especially north of Fletcher Avenue, now is home to growing numbers of immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala who come to work in restaurants, construction and day labor.
Many of those immigrants are illegal, so they carry cash rather than use banks, Burton said. Many also get around by walking and do not report crimes, making them targets for robbery.
Other reasons for the University Area's crime are complex, officials say. But they include the aftereffects of a local and federal effort in the 1990s to tear down many of the old crime-ridden public housing complexes, such as Ponce de Leon in Tampa.
As those complexes disappeared, residents dispersed to areas such as Brandon and the University Area to live in privately owned, publicly subsidized Section 8 housing, he said.
And some crime followed because outsiders who had gone to public housing to commit crimes followed those residents as they moved out, Gee said.
A USF study found that much of the area's crime is committed by people from other areas, like Sulphur Springs, Gee said.
As a result, some judges have begun to include "stay-away" orders as a term of probation. If someone comes from someplace else to commit a crime in the University Area, a condition of their probation might be to stay out of that area.
Resident Sundiata Shuel-Bey said that young people need to be educated about their options in life and encouraged to aspire to more than sports, music or drugs.
In the short term, he expects the surveillance cameras to foster a sense of safety. He hopes they don't raise tension and suspicion among residents.
"It would behoove the community members, as they feel safer coming out of their homes, to get to know each other to make sure they can continue to feel safe," said Shuel-Bey, 33, a DJ and poet known as Breeze. "If it goes like that, then the whole thing could be beneficial all the way around."